Earl, one of the strongest hurricanes of the Atlantic season, headed toward the U.S. East Coast after passing north of Puerto Rico with sustained winds of 135 miles (215 kilometers) per hour.
The “powerful” Category 4 hurricane, the second-highest on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, was 200 miles north-northwest of Puerto Rico and moving west-northwest at 13 mph, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said on its website at 9 a.m. Miami time. The center said storm models are mixed on whether Earl will continue to strengthen.
The system may strike North Carolina’s Outer Banks by Sept. 3 as a “major” hurricane with winds of at least 111 mph, the center said. Tropical storm conditions are likely to affect the Turks and Caicos Islands today as heavy winds subside in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, it said.
Earl’s northward march poses “a serious threat to the East Coast as we approach the Labor Day weekend,” Jim Rouiller, senior energy meteorologist at commercial forecaster Planalytics Inc., said in an e-mail. U.S. beaches are traditionally crowded for the Sept. 6 holiday.
The hurricane center’s forecast maps show Earl is likely to pass east of the Eastern Seaboard, though a direct hit remains possible with any deviation from the current track.
“Residents and tourists anywhere from North Carolina up to New England should keep track of this storm,” Robbie Berg, a hurricane specialist at the center, said today in a telephone interview from Miami. “It’s too early to tell what kind of impact will occur.”
The chances are 10 percent that the U.S. will experience hurricane-force winds of at least 74 mph in the next three days, according to Tropical Storm Risk, a London-based venture that grew out of a U.K. government-supported tsunami initiative.
TSR puts the possibility of tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 mph at 60 percent in the same time period. Both Cape Hatteras, in North Carolina, and Chatham, Massachusetts, have a 10 percent risk of hurricane-force winds.
Providence, Rhode Island, and Montauk, New York, have a 35 percent chance of experiencing tropical storm-force winds within the next four days, TSR said in a statement today.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will hold a conference call to discuss plans for Earl at 11:30 a.m. New York time.
In 2003, Hurricane Isabel struck the Outer Banks as a Category 2 storm, killing at least 16 people and causing $3.4 billion of damage, half of it to insured property, according to the center.
Hurricane Fran was a major hurricane when it hit North Carolina in 1996, causing $1.6 billion of damage to insured property, the bulk of it there and in Virginia, according to National Hurricane Center records.
Earl’s winds have reached the same intensity as Danielle at its peak. Danielle late yesterday weakened to 70 mph over the North Atlantic as it became a post-tropical storm, an indication it no longer derives its energy from warm waters. Earl’s tropical storm-force winds extend up to 200 miles from its eye and hurricane-force winds reach 70 miles.
Earl is being followed across the Atlantic by Tropical Storm Fiona, which formed yesterday and remained a “weak” system today with sustained winds of 40 mph, the hurricane center said.
Fiona is 500 miles east of the Leeward Islands heading west-northwest at 24 mph, the center said at 8 a.m. Miami time. The storm is predicted to pass to the northeast on a course between Bermuda and the U.S. East Coast. A hit on Bermuda remains a possibility, graphics on the center’s website show.
Tropical storm watches, which indicate such conditions are expected within two days, were issued today for Antigua, Barbuda, Montserrat, St. Kitts, Nevis, Anguilla, Saba and St. Eustatius. A tropical storm warning is in place for St. Martin and St. Barthelemy.
Earl blew the roofs off of buildings in Anguilla and destroyed at least one home in Antigua, according to an e-mailed report by Caribbean Risk Managers Ltd. Flooding also occurred on Antigua and 350 people were forced into shelters, according to the risk management company, based on Castries, Saint Lucia.
Tropical storm warnings were lifted for Puerto Rico and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands after Earl passed. The Turks and Caicos remain under a tropical-storm warning while the southeastern Bahamas are under a watch.
Hovensa LLC’s St. Croix refinery in the U.S. Virgin Islands operated although the island ports were shut as Earl passed to the east. The refinery sends finished products including heating oil and gasoline to the U.S. Gulf and East coasts, according to the company’s website.
“The outer rain bands of Hurricane Earl will continue to bring periods of torrential rainfall and tropical storm-force wind gusts across sections of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands through the morning hours,” the National Weather Service said in a local advisory at 6:24 a.m. Miami time. “Due to very saturated soils across the local islands, flash flooding as well as mudslides can be expected with the heavier showers.”
The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June through November, with the coming weeks usually the most active.